By Jonathan Williams
The scene was always the same. Every morning at 8:00 Marcus Jackson was at my classroom door with a scowl on his face and a half-eaten bag of red-hot, extra spicy potato chips in his hands.
I think the red-hot chips explained why Marcus had a scowl on his face. I could always count on two things each morning. The sun would rise and Marcus Jackson would ask to go to the nurse after finishing his bag of red-hot, extra spicy potato chips. It seemed that his breakfast never agreed with him.
After school Marcus wouldn’t go home. No one would be at his house until after 10 pm. His mother worked two jobs and his father was nowhere to be found. I would sometimes see Marcus riding his bike at night down streets anchored on both ends by the drug trade.
It’s been more than a year since I taught Marcus and the rest of the children in that poor urban area of Philadelphia. I’ve moved on to a new church in New York City called Church of the Incarnation (COTI). Our church began with a vision to reach the affluent and established families on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But after a journey for permanent worship space that would have made Odysseus proud, our church settled in South Harlem, New York. It didn’t take us long to find out who our neighbors were.
While the city I live in may be different, the plight of our new neighbors in Harlem looks remarkably similar to Marcus Jackson’s situation. They too are eating red-hot, extra spicy potato chips. These New Yorkers have little or no access to healthy foods. There are parents like Marcus’s mother who work two and three jobs just to move within reach of the poverty line. Children like Marcus hang out after school with little to do but up the ante for trouble.
How could a new church with limited resources create tangible solutions for a city with so many needs? With the vision of our lead pastor Jared Witt, and the help of established New York City organizations, Church of the Incarnation has been able to make an immediate impact in the lives of New Yorkers.
Church leaders quickly realized there are parts of New York City considered “food deserts,” blocks and blocks with no grocery stores or produce stands. Grocery store owners decided residents in these impoverished areas could not afford their food, so the residents were left with only processed, cheap food one would usually find at the local 7-Eleven. The effects of these “food deserts” are significant. Obesity and diabetes in children from these areas are off the chart.
Ana Angel and her family are Mexican immigrants. They settled in New York City a few years ago and began working menial jobs that enabled them to support their three children. Slowly, Ana’s family saved enough money to buy a small piece of land about a 90-minute drive north of the city, where they began doing the one thing Ana loved: farming.
Through the work of Ana, her husband, and their children, Ana Angel Family Farms has been successfully growing 50 types of vegetables. They just needed to find places to sell the produce and create income that would sustain the entire family.
Through the services of a New York City organization called Just Food, COTI was able to team up with Ana Angel Family Farms to help bring produce to New Yorkers. Our church started a membership group called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and called upon some of our Upper West Side neighbors to buy a season’s worth of produce from the small farm at a fixed “share” price. This gave Ana and her family an outlet to sell their produce and grow their farm. And a portion of the money from the shares—along with a contribution from COTI—was used for food subsidies that provided some low-income families with access to the local produce.
Our first CSA season was wildly successful. More than 70 families participated and received produce. The profits made by Ana Angel Family Farms allowed for installation of a new irrigation system. There already is a waiting list of 40 families for next season’s CSA. We’ve also found ways to allow low-income families to use food stamps to receive produce, which helps expand healthy food access to a larger group of people.
Everyone deserves access to healthy food. I’m hoping to never see another child walking to school at 8 am licking the salt off his fingers after eating a bag of red-hot, extra spicy chips for breakfast.
On a Friday evening in October, Jason grabbed the basketball and at the sound of the whistle, drove to the basket. He threw the basketball directly off the backboard, completely missing the hoop. One of the coaches called Jason over. He sat and listened to the coach for the next few minutes. Jason is in one of the sports camps COTI has sponsored during its brief existence.
Creating the camp was not easy. After another exhaustive search for space, we finally found a school willing to let us use its gym. The school happened to be two blocks from where Church of the Incarnation meets. When I approached the principal, she said, “We need a lot of help. I’ve had to cut all of our after-school activities, and my students have nothing to do once school lets out.”
Our church volunteered to clean out the gym. We also let the school’s students and staff know our church and a very gracious missions team would be sponsoring a basketball camp. This was how it started.
On our first night of camp, almost 30 neighborhood children showed up. Most came without their parents. Many told me their parents didn’t know where they were. We scrambled to find parents to let them know their children were safe with us. We talked to most of these parents while they were still at work. It was 7:30 pm.
Toward the end of the first evening, parents began to show up at the gym. “Thank you so much!” said one single mother. “I usually have nothing for my kids to do.”
Another father was more to the point. “People don’t want to help my kids. They’re set up for failure. Thank you for doing this.”
A teacher walked in the gym and saw Jason sitting attentively while the coach spoke with him.
“Is that Jason?”
“It is,” I said. “You know him?”
“Do I know him?” the teacher replied. “He’s notorious in this school, always in the principal’s office. He listens to no one! I usually see Jason running around outside at night. I never thought I’d see him doing so well. Thanks.”
Church of the Incarnation firmly believes in the call to love our neighbors. In the next year we’ll continue to support NY Faith & Justice and its Living Wage Campaign to work toward the day that everyone in New York City makes enough to live on. We’ll continue to feed the homeless at different churches throughout the city. We’re already preparing for our second CSA season. We look forward to the possibility of starting an after-school sports program at our neighborhood school.
I haven’t heard from Marcus Jackson in some time. I haven’t seen Jason since our basketball camp. But we don’t help others so they will come to our church. Our aim is restoring God’s hope and peace one simple act at a time.
Jonathan Williams is associate pastor with Church of the Incarnation in New York City.